Saturday, September 27, 2008

Echoes of a Movie Legend in the World of Mad Men

It’s been a week of certifiable madness.

Stock market insanity; bank and company failures on an epic scale; the dollar amount of 700 billion said with a straight face.

And now the maddening reality of the loss of Paul Newman, who embodied the sea change of generational sensibility that is rocking Don Draper’s world.

The gang at Sterling Cooper don’t drop many film references. Do none of these New Yorkers go to the movies? By 1962 they should have all seen Someone Up There Likes Me, The Long Hot Summer, Cat on a Hat Tin Roof, Exodus, and The Hustler. Paul Newman was in his early powerhouse years.

There are lots of interesting intersections here. Jon Hamm as Don Draper has that old school, classic movie star handsome look. Paul Newman did too, especially in his early roles. But he also was the energy and charisma of the new generation that was sweeping into the culture, the antiheroes of Butch Cassidy and the defiance of Cool Hand Luke. Newman did not win an Academy Award until 1986; many people thought Hamm was robbed of the Best Actor Emmy last Sunday.

The character of Don Draper and Paul Newman were born around the same year, served in WWII, and came to power in the changing postwar culture.

Draper has some of the detached cool of Ben Quick and Fast Eddy, and he has reinvented himself like Rocky Graziano and Ari Canaan did. Still, he is conservative in his worldview, except where his mistresses are concerned. They speak to a piece of him that wants to be freer. When his wife buys a yellow beach ensemble at the country club, he tells her it’s “desperate” of her. The wife/mother role is inviolate for many, but that’s still a pretty square thing to say.

This week’s episode is “Six Months Leave.” When last we saw Don, Betty had told him not to come home. Maybe she is giving him a six-month leave from their marriage. Come over to newcritics as Tom Watson and I live blog the unfolding story, Sunday night at 10.

The Last of the Light in Those Blue Eyes

Paul Newman has a unique place in the history of American film. He bridged the leading-man archetype between the classic stars of the thirties and forties-—Tracy, Gable, Powell, Flynn-—and the antiheroes of the seventies-—Pacino, DeNiro, Hoffman-—having traits of both in spades.

Drop-dead handsome in the suits of the fifties and sixties, he brought real heat to the screen out of those clothes, in torn T-shirts or bare-chested. He embodied “every man wants to be him, every woman wants to be with him.”

A magnetic screen presence, he was sophistication imbued with an appealing irony, skepticism, and detachment. In my mind he represents America when we felt good about ourselves: tough, sometimes the underdog, gets back up when knocked down, takes time to enjoy a bicycle ride, defends honor, able to see and play the angles.

It feels like a terrible omen to lose this national treasure at the end of this unsettled week.

Friday, September 26, 2008

My Bank Failed First

In another era, nearly everyone in Brooklyn got their mortgages at the Dime Savings Bank of New York. It had been around since 1859. Not as old as The Bank of New York, founded by Alexander Hamilton, but old enough for comfort.

I wasn’t part of that era, but when it came time to open a savings account as a teen on Long Island, the Dime at the mall was just fine. And years later, when I needed a mortgage, the Dime was familiar, and I got a relatively modest mortgage.

Then, several years ago, the Dime was gone, and suddenly my money was at a bank called WaMu, short for Washington Mutual. It made little difference to me at the time, not be a very money-minded person. I could have/should have looked into what was this Seattle-based banking entity.

But life is short, and only art is long, and I didn’t pay attention.

Well, they have my attention now. Splashed across the NYTimes “Washington Mutual was seized by federal regulators in what is the largest bank failure in American history.”

It is numbing to have your life savings in a bank that has completely failed. Both the Federal Government, under FDIC, and JPMorganChase have stepped in to buy the assets. It was business as usual in the bank today. There was no run on at the teller lines, no particular panic. All the info on the websites we were directed to said that we had had an account at WaMu, and now we will have one at Chase. Very orderly.

Still, it’s a sickening feeling. Middle class means always having to worry. Heavy tax burdens, and no programs to help. The middle class spends a lifetime just staying afloat. But the system has to be in balance for it to work.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation meant that eligible, insured funds were backed by “the full faith and credit of the United States Government.”

Right now, I’d rather be protected by reason and “the math” rather than the government’s faith and credit.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

An Eye on Television

The Emmys are the most insane of the award shows.

The evening’s first two awards set a dreadful tone. Jeremy Piven won for a third consecutive year for Entourage. How does that make any sense. We all love the character Ari Gold, but three consecutive wins just shows how stupid the tabulating is for the Emmys. Neil Patrick Harris or John Slattery should have won.

Jean Smart won for Samantha Who?, a show that no one watches. Holland Taylor or Kristen Chenilworth should have won.

There was a strange shut out of Hugh Laurie and Jon Hamm by Bryan Cranston for best actor in a drama; Glenn Close did the same to break the Kyra Sedgwick/Holly Hunter dead heat in best actress in a drama.

There were some good moments. A nice tribute to Tommy Smothers. I’m always thrilled to see Martin Sheen. The Tina Fey juggernaut was okay, and I’m glad that Alec Baldwin won, since he went to my high school.

But all in all, it was a pretty discouraging state-of-the-television universe to someone who watches television fairly seriously.

However, I did have a positive television experience last week. The cast of Broadway’s The 39 Steps came to The Paley Center for Media to introduce 3 classic episodes from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders—who perform 40 different characters in the play between them in the innovative stage play—did the honors. They were funny and informed.

But the highlight of the evening was “Lamb to the Slaughter” with Barbara Bel Geddes, directed by Hitchcock himself; “The Man from the South” written by Roald Dahl, starring Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre; and “The Glass Eye” starring Jessica Tandy, with a young William Shatner, and costarring Billy Barty.

“Man from the South” was the most surreal and creepiest of the lot. Peter Lorre wielding a meat cleaver while Steve McQueen’s hand is tied down to a table while he tries to light his pocket lighter 10 times in a row was incredibly suspenseful.

It was a treat to see Hitch himself in the filmed bumpers around the episodes: he was funny, macabre, and disparaging of the commercial side of the medium. It was classy, intelligent, weekly television. A timely reminder that it can happen.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

In the Shadow of the Archduke

Last week we experienced a sickening reality of modern life: the chain reaction, house of cards, dominoes-falling impact of intertwined financial institutions. The most frightening aspect was the feeling that no one understands the big picture—no one really knows what’s happening or how to turn things around. The second most frightening aspect is the lack of responsibility on so many levels. Powerful people have been bilking the greater system for a long time, as we average people struggle for the basics of a house or apartment and a mortgage.

I don’t have a financial brain—just like I don’t have a political brain-—so I can barely follow the variables or the underlying premises.

I can only find some understanding in metaphor. As the week enfolded, a lesson from history swirled in my mind as I tried to understand what I was reading about trillion dollar bailouts.

It was how the assassination of an obscure archduke plunged the world into war and led to the death of civilization as the world knew it. Who could have thought, on June 27, 1914, that the next day when a Bosnian-Serb citizen killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, that the retaliation by Austria-Hungary against the Kingdom of Serbia would set off alliances that pulled the world into death. The world was never the same after the trenches of the Great War. The people of 1914, of course, didn’t have the perspective of what was really happening to them-—they could only react to each specific event or death of a family member on the battlefield or rationing, and keep going. Only history gets to have the tidy little stories that makes sense of the actual chaos.

A hundred years from now someone will be reading the latter-day version of Wikipedia about the financial collapse of 2008. What will the entry say? What’s the larger picture that we can’t see? Where is this leading us?

Maybe I’m focusing on that question to keep my mind off looking at my 403 (b) plan [I work for a nonprofit], where so much money has evaporated that I could weep for a week.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Living Ballet on the Bicycle

Let us now speak of the bicycle--as the most elegant of transportation modes, not in the sense of sport of riding. My 10 days of living in Rimini were enriched by having a bicycle to get around.

On my bicycle I finally felt integrated into Italian life. Stripped of all monkish guides and traveling companions, it was just me, the city map, and the bicycle, and thus I joined the amazing dynamic that is Italian flow.

Rimini is a schizophrenic beach town. The beach side is like the worst of Ft. Lauderdale; the old town center has beautiful vestiges of ancient Roman engineering and medieval walls in a no-car zone.

My hotel was near the beach, and the music conservatory was in the old town. Each morning I bicycled down one of the city’s main boulevards to one of the bike paths in the park.

It is freeing and empowering to buzz around on a bicycle. Even though it is not with the speed of the sport, you still feel that “oneness” with the machine the athletes talk about. Riding each morning in a flowing skirt with flip flops on my feet and knapsack on my bike were some of the happiest moments of well being I have recently known.

Biking though a crowded pedestrian plaza is a challenging art. You can come up behind someone and stop for a few seconds and still not put your foot down-—you can actually hover for the nanoseconds it takes someone to step out of your path, when you start pedaling again. It is like a beautiful, living ballet.

Sometimes in the midst of the flow walkers and bikers try to share the very same space. Thumb on the bell, you can gently “brrrrrrrring” when coming up on walkers, or give a frantic, loud “BRRING, BRRIING” if impact is immanent.

Rimini embraces bicyclists; my hometown is not very hospitable to them, except maybe in Central Park. I won’t be biking down Broadway any time soon—I don’t have the nerves for it. For me a daily ride—like attending a music conservatory—is the road not taken, but at least now visited, with deep appreciation.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Super Flumina Babilonis: From TV to the Choir Loft

Super flumina Babilonis. That’s Latin for “By the Waters of Babylon."

In my daily American life, it reminds me of Don Draper and the gang in season one of Mad Men which ended with the Beats singing the folk version of the song

In my 10 days of being an Italian polyphony singer, the words, set by the Renaissance master Palestrina, were a clearer path to the Biblical roots of the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, cogently connecting us to the ancient sadness by the ancient Latin, sung in the slightly less ancient Basilica San Vitale in Ravenna.

Illic sedimus et flevimus: We sat down and wept

cum recordaremur Sion: When we remembered Sion

In salicibus in medio ejus suspendimus organa nostra: and we hung up our harps in the willows.

From the privilege of the choir loft, the celebrated mosaics were almost in arm’s reach. That was exciting. The view of the church from the loft was also memorable.

There were many things that were striking about participating in this international choral workshop in Rimini. One was how much of an Olympics air it had. Of the 25 people, half were the home team of Italians, then there were the Danes, the Dutch, a Russian from Moscow, several Brits, and three Americans. English was the lingua franca, followed by Italian.

The dinner conversation was interesting and varied, fueled by the diversity of day jobs. And it was there that I learned that most of my fellow singers don’t watch television. Nobody said it in the snobby way New Yorkers do—it sounded consistently genuine, and true (again, not like some New Yorker’s claims).

Well, I do a lot of things besides watching television, but I became aware of how many of my casual conversation references are tv-based. Travel. You can’t beat it for a dose of self-awareness.

One of the nonwatchers was Peter Phillips himself, the director of the Tallis Scholars. I didn’t know what to expect of this world-class conductor who runs summer workshops for amateurs. You would think the nonpros would be intolerable to him. But, it’s an easy way for him to be paid very well to stay in one place for a week, for a couple of hours’ work a day. The Tallis Scholars can't tour 12 months a year.

I have to say it was a thrill to sing under his direction. The control that he had over the group was sterling. And with his talent, we were able to pull off an 8-part piece. He was funny, engaged with what we were all doing, and down to earth.

One of his own next big projects is establishing a choir at Merton College, Oxford. I told him it’s a shame that the Inspector Morse series isn’t still filming there, (although the Sargeant Lewis sequels may be), but not being a tv-watcher, the reference meant nothing. Happily I also brought up Nesciens Mater, when he spoke about wanting to put the composer Jean Mouton on the map. That made him nod and smile.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

9/11: The Formal Feeling Comes

After great pain a formal feeling comes--
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions--was it He that bore?
And yesterday--or centuries before?

The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
Regardless grown,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow--
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

As I thought about this seventh sad year from the attacks, Emily Dickinson’s poem filled my head and would not leave. Seven years, and a sinking disbelief remains.

Lives directly affected have moved on in varying ways, from bodies healing as they will to others who developed aftermath conditions from working on the pile.

I had no direct physical experience of the attacks, working in midtown and living on the Upper West Side. I am only part of the larger New Yorker experience, and that’s where I’m feeling stuck in the formal feeling. It’s not the stupor of the day or the first year, but there is not yet the release of letting go-—which for me might be when the Memorial and Museum are completed.

That process is itself somewhat stupefying-—from the complexity of the plans to bureaucratic delays to all the changes in designs. Even yesterday the NY Times reported “Latest Design for 9/11 Museum Merges Old and New.” Given the process to date, there will likely be yet more, other, different designs.

This description from Wikipedia is the clearest I have seen on the whole plan, called Memory Foundations, from Daniel Libeskind:

“Memory Foundations places at the center of the New World Trade Center a large memorial to the victims of the September 11th attacks. Surrounding the memorial will be five large office buildings arranged in an ascending spiral upward from the southeast of the site. The spiral's pinnacle — the tallest building at the site — will be the 1776 foot (541 m) Freedom Tower, designed by David Childs. Also included will be a transit station designed by Santiago Calatrava, a museum being designed by architectural firm Snøhetta, a cultural complex being designed by Frank Gehry, and various parks and public spaces.”

I find that there is little energy or momentum to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum: the enormity of the emotional challenge in addition to the bureaucracy has thwarted the creative process to date. There is little real focus on the fundraising for it-—no celebrity has taken on the spokesperson role.

A memorial just opened at Logan Airport. It looks perfectly fitting in scale and thoughtful in elements.

The graveyard that is Ground Zero however needs transformation that will require enormous depth of vision and strength of will. I think the delays and changes in the design are just an outward sign of the collective damage we are all still feeling.

I know the memorial will rise, in its own time, when its creators and we inheritors are at the right place to receive it. And, I believe, it will have a palpable spiritual dimension, guided by the souls it seeks honors.

(Logan Airport Memorial photo: Travis Dove for The Boston Globe)